Weekend notebook: 32 reasons to be thankful

Photo: Jeff Pexton

📝 by Patrick Williams

Thanksgiving in the United States has long had a special meaning in the hockey world.

Six weeks after opening night, the holiday provides a natural point at which to take stock of the season so far. Is that team off to a hot start for real? Is a slow open to the campaign nothing more than that, something that can be reversed with a strong post-holiday run?

Off the ice for AHL front offices, the days before and after Thanksgiving have long been counted on as box-office successes.

Players, no matter where they have come from, look forward to a home-cooked meal with their teammates and adopted families. AHL teams that are on the road make sure to have a feast prepared for their players and staff. For many teams, that fourth Thursday in November means a light practice day or perhaps a day away from the rink completely.

The Providence Bruins celebrated their hold on first place in the AHL with a meal in Syracuse before they face the resurgent Crunch tonight and Saturday. Before a pair of games this weekend in Hartford with the Wolf Pack, the Hershey Bears headed to a local country club to stock up on calories.

But beyond the good food and abundance of action this weekend across the AHL, the holiday is a time to slow down and give thanks. Going into a busy weekend of play, here is a team-by-team look at what all 32 AHL clubs can be thankful for this year.

🏒 With 35-goal scorer Sheldon Dries spending most of the season so far in Vancouver, forward Lane Pederson has been a welcome addition to the AHL Canucks. Pederson came to the organization from Carolina in an Oct. 28 deal and has immediately injected offense into the Abbotsford lineup. Going into today’s road matinee in Calgary, Pederson has totaled seven goals in nine games for Abbotsford, six of them coming during a current five-game scoring streak.

🏒 Condors defenseman Michael Kesselring, a 2018 sixth-round draft pick by the parent Edmonton Oilers, has been one of the AHL’s top breakout stories this season. The second-year pro out of Northeastern University has scored seven goals already, tied for the league lead among blueliners. Kesselring’s progression will be something for Edmonton fans to watch closely.

🏒 A barrage of injuries to several key players has forced the Senators to lean heavily on depth and stretch players’ capabilities. Through it all, Belleville has managed to stay within sight of the North Division’s top four. If and when they can stay healthy for an extended period, they will be that much stronger for it.

🏒 Save for a brief sputter earlier this month, the Islanders have been excellent so far. Two of their three regulation losses this season have come against league-leading Providence, but they have also beaten the Bruins twice on the road. Powered by exciting prospects like Simon Holmstrom, Aatu Raty, Ruslan Iskhakov, William Dufour, Arnaud Durandeau and leading scorer Samuel Bolduc, it does not look like this Bridgeport club will be going away.

🏒 New home, but same core of Flames prospects who reached the Western Conference Finals last spring. Dustin Wolf, Jakob Pelletier, Matthew Phillips and Connor Zary are among the returnees who have the Wranglers competing for first place in the Pacific Division. They possess a potent power play (29.6 percent) and are a significant possibility for another long run through the Calder Cup Playoffs.

🏒 With Seattle’s prospects leaving town after a one-season stopover in Charlotte, how would the Checkers adjust to their offseason turnover? Quite well, apparently. The Florida Panthers stocked their AHL roster well, and the Checkers are once again contenders. In his first North American season, Finnish import Anton Levtchi has 13 points in 16 games.

🏒 A crush of player movement to and from the Columbus Blue Jackets has yet to slow down the Monsters, whose 4.13 goals per game and 32.1 percent power-play efficiency both lead the AHL. Trey Fix-Wolansky and Carson Meyer both rank among the league scoring leaders, and first-year head coach Trent Vogelhuber has the Monsters looking to be a major threat.

🏒 Chicago isn’t the juggernaut it was a season ago, but that third Calder Cup championship banner that now hangs at Allstate Arena is plenty of reason for thanks. The Wolves were hit hard by offseason departures, precisely because they did their job in preparing talent for jobs with the Carolina Hurricanes and elsewhere in the National Hockey League.

🏒 The beginning of Firebirds hockey means two months and 22 games on the road as they await completion of the state-of-the-art Acrisure Arena in Palm Desert, Calif. The Kraken affiliate was able to set up shop in Seattle — including four “home” games in the Pacific Northwest last month — and has an 8-4-2-0 record to stay smack-dab in the Pacific Division race. When they finally do head home for their Dec. 18 debut at their new building, the Firebirds should be well-positioned for a second-half run and a schedule packed with home dates.

🏒 The Eagles took an eight-game point streak into the Thanksgiving break and sit atop the Pacific Division going into this weekend’s two-game home set with the Iowa Wild. Another club that has had to handle several key recalls to the NHL parent club, the Eagles’ depth has taken over, and long-time NHL forward Alex Galchenyuk certainly looks nice in the Colorado lineup as well.

🏒 Is Steve Yzerman going to do with the Detroit Red Wings what he already did with the Tampa Bay Lightning? It sure is beginning to look like it. The Red Wings GM has assembled one of the most exciting groups of elite young talent in the AHL, including Jonatan Berggren, Simon Edvinsson and Cross Hanas. An eight-game road trip early in the season was a challenge, but the Griffins got it out of the way; as those prospects settle in, this should be a dynamic team to watch.

🏒 The New York Rangers sending forward Ryan Reaves to Minnesota earlier this week could mean opportunity: for someone in Hartford, it is one fewer obstacle to a role with the NHL club as the Wolf Pack also work to find their footing. The AHL is about opportunity, and it is here.

🏒 The AHL brand has come to the Las Vegas area, established in barely two years by a club with one of the most colorful approaches to marketing in hockey. The beautiful Dollar Loan Center opened last April, and the Silver Knights expect to become a destination for players for a long time.

🏒 Chocolatetown has been plenty sweet to the Bears this season; they are a league-best 8-1-1-0 on home ice. This being a Todd Nelson-coached team, Hershey has been a defensive standout also, pacing the AHL with per-game averages of 2.25 goals against and 25.7 shots against.

🏒 Rookie forward Sammy Walker, signed by the parent Wild this summer, attracted plenty of attention from NHL clubs. The Minnesota native and former University of Minnesota captain is tied for the AHL rookie scoring lead at 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) with Iowa.

🏒 The Rocket can continue to be thankful for the beautiful Place Bell and the packed crowds that cheer them on there. The arena was highlighted during Laval’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals last spring, and will be on display again when it hosts the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Bell in February.

🏒 As the Philadelphia Flyers continue to reconstruct their organization, the Phantoms are being counted on to play a significant role in that process. Following a slow start, wins of five of their past six games have the Phantoms back in the Atlantic Division fray. Youngsters Tyson Foerster, Cam York, Ronnie Attard, Elliot Desnoyers and Samuel Ersson have led Lehigh Valley so far.

🏒 The Moose built one of the closest rosters last season, and offseason losses have not hurt them this fall, either. Alex Limoges leads Manitoba in scoring after inking his first NHL contract with Winnipeg, and newcomer Oskari Salminen has been a solid addition in net.

🏒 After winning their first playoff series in 11 years, the Admirals are back again with some unfinished business. Packed with a strong base of Nashville prospects including Luke Evangelista, Phil Tomasino, Egor Afanasyev and Yaroslav Askarov, Milwaukee has won 11 of its first 15 games and owns the best record in the Western Conference.

🏒 Fans who come to Toyota Arena each night have a chance to see some of the top prospects in hockey. Quinton Byfield, Tobias Bjornfot, Samuel Fagemo, Helge Grans, Akil Thomas, Samuel Helenius, Alex Turcotte and Rasmus Kupari were all recent first- or second-round draft picks by the Kings; even by AHL standards, this is a young team, but it is brimming with potential.

🏒 Always a contender, the Bruins sit atop the AHL standings at 10-2-3-2. They own a top-tier veteran core that could take them far, and three of their top five scorers are rookies in Fabian Lysell, Georgii Merkulov and Luke Toporowski. Goaltender Brandon Bussi was in the ECHL a month ago, but he now leads the AHL with a .942 save percentage and has become a go-to option for head coach Ryan Mougenel.

🏒 Energetic head coach Seth Appert has fostered one of the most engaging, personable teams in the AHL. As the Buffalo Sabres rebuild, they want that positive, winning environment to grow in Rochester that can be ingrained in prospects early in their careers. Fans had a taste of that feeling last spring during the Amerks’ deepest playoff run since 2005; now everybody in Rochester wants more of it.

🏒 Forward David Gust, a Chicago-area native, crossed over to the IceHogs from the rival Wolves in the offseason. Long a dependable player, he has unlocked even more offense in his game and is third in AHL scoring at 21 points (nine goals, 12 assists) in only 15 games.

🏒 New head coach Roy Sommer was not sure what was next for him after he left the San Jose Barracuda following last season. Then the Anaheim Ducks installed him as their new head coach in San Diego, and the AHL coaching legend was back behind a bench. The AHL is a better place with Sommer.

🏒 A new home and a new roster mean new life for the Barracuda this fall. Massive offseason changes have brought back winning hockey, and the sparkling Tech CU Arena is a gem. They have used a goaltending trio in Aaron Dell, Eetu Makiniemi and Strauss Mann that provides remarkable depth at the position.

🏒 Springfield hockey fans were hungry for playoff hockey, and they were rewarded with the city’s first trip to the Calder Cup Finals since 1991. That winning feeling has carried over to this season, and the Thunderbirds have found a great match with the St. Louis Blues.

🏒 This has become a pattern for the Crunch — a slow start followed by a November turnaround. The Crunch are in the middle of another one of those, rebounding from a 2-6-1-2 start with a five-game winning streak as league-leading Providence comes to town for two games this weekend.

🏒 Forward Matej Blumel may not be long for the Texas lineup at this rate. With 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 10 games Blumel has already earned time with the Dallas Stars. The offseason signing from the Czech Extraliga has been a wonderful addition to the organization.

🏒 After missing the Calder Cup Playoffs last season, the Marlies are back. They survived a goaltending exodus after injuries hit the parent Toronto Maple Leafs in net, and their power play is potent at an even 30.0 percent, second-best in the AHL. The Marlies meet Cleveland in a home-and-home this weekend.

🏒 After beginning his pro career in Europe and winning a bronze medal with Slovakia at the 2022 Olympics, forward Milos Kelemen is taking his shot at an NHL job. The Arizona Coyotes signed him in the offseason, and he has adapted well to life with the Roadrunners, with six goals and five assists in 15 games.

🏒 Comets fans have had an opportunity to see something special — defenseman Simon Nemec, who went second overall in July’s NHL Draft to the New Jersey Devils. The 18-year-old has more than held his own at the AHL level as he works toward being a mainstay in the New Jersey lineup for a long time.

🏒 Any team with two-time Calder Cup winner Dustin Tokarski has a chance. Always one of the top goalies in the league when he’s in the AHL, Tokarski is 6-2-2 with a 1.69 GAA and a .940 save percentage this season. The Penguins, 2-1-0-1 since a four-game losing skid, host Lehigh Valley tonight.

Something has to give when Rochester hosts Bridgeport in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week tonight (7 ET).

The Amerks have the second-best home point percentage in the AHL (.813) and are coming off a 4-3 win over Providence on Wednesday in one of the league’s best games this season. Rochester scored three times in the third period to force overtime, where Linus Weissbach scored on a breakaway with 5.1 seconds left to polish off the win. The Amerks are a remarkable 4-0-0-0 at home this season when trailing going into the third period.

But the Islanders have been a danger on the road, where they have points in seven of eight games (4-1-3-0) this season. At 10-3-3-0 overall, the Islanders will put a three-game winning streak on the line when they see the Amerks for the first time this season.

🏒 Three AHL players made their National Hockey League debuts on Wednesday night, bringing the season total to 21.

A first-round choice by Colorado (28th overall) in the 2021 NHL Draft, rookie Oskar Olausson made his debut with the Avalanche against Vancouver. Olausson, who turned 20 earlier this month, has four goals and four assists in 16 AHL games with the Colorado Eagles.

In his fourth year with Bridgeport but still just 21, Simon Holmstrom was in the New York Islanders lineup for the first time as they shut out Edmonton. Holmstrom, taken in the first round (23rd overall) of the 2019 NHL Draft, has three goals and two assists in 15 AHL games this season.

Mac Hollowell, a fourth-round draft pick by Toronto in 2018, debuted for the Maple Leafs in their 2-1 win at New Jersey. The 24-year-old Hollowell has nine assists in 11 games with the AHL Marlies this season.